Landscape drives zoonotic malaria prevalence in non-human primates

Elife. 2024 May 16:12:RP88616. doi: 10.7554/eLife.88616.


Zoonotic disease dynamics in wildlife hosts are rarely quantified at macroecological scales due to the lack of systematic surveys. Non-human primates (NHPs) host Plasmodium knowlesi, a zoonotic malaria of public health concern and the main barrier to malaria elimination in Southeast Asia. Understanding of regional P. knowlesi infection dynamics in wildlife is limited. Here, we systematically assemble reports of NHP P. knowlesi and investigate geographic determinants of prevalence in reservoir species. Meta-analysis of 6322 NHPs from 148 sites reveals that prevalence is heterogeneous across Southeast Asia, with low overall prevalence and high estimates for Malaysian Borneo. We find that regions exhibiting higher prevalence in NHPs overlap with human infection hotspots. In wildlife and humans, parasite transmission is linked to land conversion and fragmentation. By assembling remote sensing data and fitting statistical models to prevalence at multiple spatial scales, we identify novel relationships between P. knowlesi in NHPs and forest fragmentation. This suggests that higher prevalence may be contingent on habitat complexity, which would begin to explain observed geographic variation in parasite burden. These findings address critical gaps in understanding regional P. knowlesi epidemiology and indicate that prevalence in simian reservoirs may be a key spatial driver of human spillover risk.

Keywords: Plasmodium knowlesi; disease ecology; ecology; epidemiology; forest fragmentation; global health; landscape change; macaca fascicularis; malaria.

Plain language summary

Zoonotic diseases are infectious diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans. For example, the malaria-causing parasite Plasmodium knowlesi can be transmitted from monkeys to humans through mosquitos that have previously fed on infected monkeys. In Malaysia, progress towards eliminating malaria is being undermined by the rise of human incidences of ‘monkey malaria’, which has been declared a public health threat by The World Health Organisation. In humans, cases of monkey malaria are higher in areas of recent deforestation. Changes in habitat may affect how monkeys, insects and humans interact, making it easier for diseases like malaria to pass between them. Deforestation could also change the behaviour of wildlife, which could lead to an increase in infection rates. For example, reduced living space increases contact between monkeys, or it may prevent behaviours that help animals to avoid parasites. Johnson et al. wanted to investigate how the prevalence of malaria in monkeys varies across Southeast Asia to see whether an increase of Plasmodium knowlesi in primates is linked to changes in the landscape. They merged the results of 23 existing studies, including data from 148 sites and 6322 monkeys to see how environmental factors like deforestation influenced the amount of disease in different places. Many previous studies have assumed that disease prevalence is high across all macaques, monkey species that are considered pests, and in all places. But Johnson et al. found that disease rates vary widely across different regions. Overall disease rates in monkeys are lower than expected (only 12%), but in regions with less forest or more ‘fragmented’ forest areas, malaria rates are higher. Areas with a high disease rate in monkeys tend to further coincide with infection hotspots for humans. This suggests that deforestation may be driving malaria infection in monkeys, which could be part of the reason for increased human infection rates. Johnsons et al.’s study has provided an important step towards better understanding the link between deforestation and the levels of monkey malaria in humans living nearby. Their study provides important insights into how we might find ways of managing the landscape better to reduce health risks from wildlife infection.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Asia, Southeastern / epidemiology
  • Ecosystem
  • Humans
  • Malaria* / epidemiology
  • Malaria* / parasitology
  • Malaria* / transmission
  • Plasmodium knowlesi*
  • Prevalence
  • Primate Diseases / epidemiology
  • Primate Diseases / parasitology
  • Primate Diseases / transmission
  • Primates* / parasitology
  • Zoonoses* / epidemiology
  • Zoonoses* / parasitology
  • Zoonoses* / transmission